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Agenda item

Question Time:

(i)                 To answer questions from members of the public pursuant to Procedure Rule No. 10.

 

(ii)               To answer questions from members of the Council pursuant to Procedure Rule No. 11

 

Minutes:

QUESTIONS FROM MEMBERS OF THE COUNCIL NO.1

 

Under Procedure Rule No 11, Councillor Dr S Peaple will ask the Leader of the Council, Councillor D Cook, the following question:-

 

“Following the government’s announcement of the second round of funding for councils during the Covid crisis please would the Leader detail for the benefit of the Council the following;

 

  1. The additional costs incurred by the Council in responding to the Covid crisis

 

  1. The lost revenue to the Council from Business Rates and the likely impact on TBC’s income from the current Staffordshire rates pool arrangements

 

  1. The loss in revenue from Council Tax and TBC’s share of that lost revenue

 

  1. The loss in revenue from Car Parking

 

  1. The loss in revenue from the Council’s other services

 

  1. The grants received from the government to mitigate losses due to Covid -19

 

  1. The financial impact of the crisis on the Housing Revenue Account 2019/20 and 2020/2021

 

  1. The nett impact of the answers to Questions 1 – 6 on the current MTFS in Year 1 and in Years 2 & 3.

 

Councillor D Cook gave the following reply:-

 

“Thank you Mr Mayor,

 

I am sure Councillor Peaple can accept that no one can know what the effect of the Covid-19 crisis will have on the economy and ultimately the impact for the Councils finances. It will be many months before we have a clearer idea on how the economy has responded to the recovery process – including any lasting effects for individual businesses and their employees. It is worth noting that Tamworth as a local economy has been listed 9th in England for risk post Covid-19 Lockdown due to the nature and make up of our economy. Source is Centre for Progressive Policy via our MP.

 

This would also be an ideal opportunity to thank our staff and the fantastic local voluntary sector that have risen to the challenges and given so much.

 

Let’s all recall the Council has ongoing monitoring processes in place for its spending and income levels – which are considered by the Corporate Scrutiny Committee and Cabinet on a quarterly basis. This includes updates on the collection levels of business rates, council tax and housing rent income as well as information on benefits and Universal Credit claimants. It also includes updated projections for the Medium Term Financial Strategy (MTFS).

 

The latest update has been published and is due to be considered by the Corporate Scrutiny Committee on 17th June 2020. While it is still early into the new financial year, an updated forecast has been prepared which models the impact of the lockdown on the Councils finances. Over 5 years, a projected unfavourable impact of £2.5million is forecast under the central case scenario for the General Fund. Depending on the ongoing effect of the Covid-19 crisis, this could be much worse.

 

As a result the updated forecast, the projections identify a shortfall in General Fund balances of £1.4m over 3 years (compared with forecast balances in the February 2020 MTFS of half a million) – with a shortfall of £5.2m to 2023/24 increasing to £9.5m over 5 years (the shortfall was previously forecast at £3.4m in 2023/24, £6.9m by 2024/25), including the minimum approved level of half a million.

 

This includes forecast income reductions for the year as follows:

 

·         Reduced income from fees and charges of £1.7m in 2020/21 (including car parking, Assembly Rooms and court costs) £300k p.a. thereafter; we have assumed 10% loss longer term p.a.

·         Reduced commercial and industrial rent income of £600k in 2020/21, £300k p.a. thereafter;

·         Reduced income on investments due to low interest rates / deferral of property fund investments - £300k in 2020/21, £100k p.a. thereafter;

·         Reduced council tax income in 2020/21 of £200k (impact on 2021/22 budget through council tax deficit in Collection fund);

·         Reduced business rates income in 2020/21 of £300k (impact on 2021/22 budget through business rates deficit in Collection fund).

As well as forecast one off Covid-19 costs of £500k in 2020/21 for void business rates, waste management and homelessness – offset by savings in contingency budgets of £500k p.a.

MHCLG confirmed the second tranche of COVID-19 funding for Councils on 28 April – £1.6bn allocated on a population basis for District Councils (after a 65%/35% split for Upper tier/lower tier Councils). The Council received another £755,000 based on our population on top of the £41,000 we have previously received. The majority of the first tranche of funding went to County Councils due to their social care responsibilities.

The additional £1.6 billion funding brings the total so far to £3.2 billion to deal with the immediate impacts of coronavirus. They have said that split of funding between county and district councils also reflects the financial pressure being felt by councils as a result of residents doing the right thing and staying at home, rather than using services including car parks and leisure facilities.

 

The increased funding is a step in the right direction and recognises the financial pressures (mainly due to lost income) that District Councils like Tamworth are facing, while we are responding to the challenges and supporting the community through the lockdown - and still delivering key front line services like housing, homelessness prevention, waste management, street cleaning, open space maintenance, planning, environmental health, community safety and so on. In terms of services we provide, the vast majority did not stop.

 

A detailed breakdown of the grant funding and Government interventions relevant to Tamworth Borough Council is shown below:

Upfront Section 31 grant for previous business rates relief for 2020/21 paid 27th March. £1.1m, basically early to help with cash flow.

 

£565k hardship funding for Local Council Tax Reduction Scheme paid 3rd April. But this is just pass-ported to residents.

 

Extended Retail relief - £16m Section 31 grant for extended business rates relief for 2020/21 to be paid monthly commencing May. Basically, leisure, hospitality and retail don’t pay NNDR this year and the government cover us.

 

Deferral of £1.5m first 3 months Business Rates payments to Government to later in year, so a help with cash flow again.

 

As stated above we have received c800k (£41k paid 27 March + £755k May) un-ring-fenced grant for Covid-19 related pressures.

 

Business grants £12m paid 1st April – paid out around £11million so far (with a further £1.56m announced 15th May).

 

Discretionary Business Grant Scheme - £679k announced 15th May.

 

For April and May, there have been some additional staffing costs directly related to covid-19 (there has been some small amounts of overtime by exception, sickness cover payments and agency staff – less than £10k in total). There has also been homelessness block booking costs of £17k and some admin costs of £5k.

 

The vast majority of staff has either continued to work as normally as they can (either from home for previous office based staff or throughout the borough for other staff like street scene etc.).

 

With regard to Business Rates, when we set the budget we expected to collect.£35m, however the Government intervention means businesses in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors will pay no Business Rates for the financial year 2020-21, regardless of their rateable value, and will mean a reduction in Business Rates income of .£16m (funded by Government) as stated earlier.

 

The monthly performance monitoring for Business Rates income has identified that income received is 5% below target to the end of May - equating to £933k during the lockdown period. The impact for the Business Rates pool will not be known for some months as the recovery progresses in Districts around the County. Should there be a shortfall in collection levels in 2020/21 then this will mean a deficit on the collection fund impacting on the 2021/22 budget.

 

With regard to Council Tax – the monthly performance monitoring to the end of May has identified that income received is 1.1% lower than target which equates to £363k and reflects an increase seen in Local Council Tax scheme claimants arising from the effect of the lockdown on businesses and employees. 10.4% of the council tax income collected is retained by Tamworth Borough Council with c.90% paid in funding Staffordshire County Council, Police and Fire services.

 

The collection level for sundry debt, including commercial and industrial rents, is 37% compared to a target of 81%, with debt of £590k outstanding.

 

In terms of income from fees and charges, when comparing to April and May 2019, car parking income lost equates to £118k. In addition, other income from fees and charges has seen a £153k reduction when compared to the same period last year (including licensing and the castle). In addition, it should also be noted that as the Assembly Rooms has been closed, planned income of £137k has not been received.

 

The total forecast loss of income for 2020/21 is £2.6m.

 

The pandemic’s timing at the very end of the financial year means that the majority of rent income within the Housing Revenue Account was already collected for 2019/20.

 

As a result the updated forecast for the Housing Revenue Account, over the 3 year period to 2022/23, there will be a shortfall in balances of £700k (compared with forecast balances remaining of £2.1m in the February MTFS) with a shortfall in balances of £1.5m over the 4 years to 2023/24 increasing to £2.5m in 2024/25 (balances were previously forecast at £1.4m in 2023/24, £1.1m in 2024/25).

 

This is because the forecast has been updated to include the effects of the pandemic on rental income:

 

·         Rent loss of £300k in 2020/21 due to delays in letting void properties (based on an estimated 280 voids per annum - 70 per quarter);

 

·         Rent loss of £300k in 2020/21 (£0.1m p.a. thereafter) due to increase in universal credit applications - arrears are seen to increase where Universal Credit claimants can wait 5 weeks for payment and on some occasions even longer.  Every case where a claimant is waiting 5 weeks, costs the Council on average c. £425; as you will be aware Madam Mayor, myself and Councillor People have long shared concerns over the process of UC and have historically written to government together on this matter.

 

·         Rent loss of £150k in 2020/21 due to temporary suspension of deductions from Universal Credit for rent arrears.

There may also be increased repairs and investment contract costs arising from Covid-19 - Whilst the exact costs will not be known until all works adjustments have been accounted for it is likely that the monthly cost will be in the region £95,000 per month or £285,000 over the three months April to June. As it becomes possible to undertake more work on site then the sums attributable to the Covid-19 Procurement Policy Note requirements would reduce. Basically we pay the contractor while they are partly stood down.

 

Mr Mayor, let me finish by re-assuring all Councillors that Cabinet and Senior officers are talking almost daily about how our financial impacts post Covid-19 and possible long term mitigations. Once we have solid plans costed out, we will update all members. We also await thoughts from government on further financial help post Covid-19.”

 

Councillor Dr S Peaple asked the following supplementary question-

 

“Yes please. Mr Mayor, can I just preface that supplementary by thanking the Leader of the Council for the detailed response. It would have been very easy to drop into some kind of political attack when I was simply trying to do what a responsible opposition does which is to ask what's the scale of the problem. This is not a problem that Tamworth Borough Council had created. Whatever issues there are nationally about policy, the council did the right thing in supporting those who are vulnerable and it followed instructions from government so my question has hopefully illuminated some of the corners that we will have to address and I would ask councillor Danny Cook,  if he would just confirm to me that with the work that's already been done, and following a meeting of the West Midlands Combined Authority Scrutiny Committee on Monday, there was much talk of a pre parliamentary recess fiscal event which appeared to mean that the government was contemplating some kind of economic recovery package and would he agree with me that this is the right time for Councils like ourselves to demonstrate to government that a fair settlement of this cost means an additional section 31 grant of whatever is relevant to each council? I'm sure you'll agree with me that we now make those representations. Thank you Mr Mayor.”

 

 

Councillor D Cook gave the following reply:-

 

“Thank you again Mr Mayor and again thank you Councillor Dr Peaple for your follow up question I can confirm to start with that I've already written to our MP Christopher Pincher laying out the scale of what we believe the problem will be post COVID-19, but I'm also happy to make a phone call with Councillor Dr Peaple. I'm happy to discuss how we can approach a joint letter to the Government as well if he wishes. Absolutely agree with him, this is not a time to be political, the council didn't cause this problem and as a collection of 30 councillors, we need to work together to ensure that services continue in Tamworth. I’m happy to support.”

 

 

QUESTIONS FROM MEMBERS OF THE COUNCIL NO.2

 

Under Procedure Rule No 11, Councillor R Ford will ask the Leader of the Council, Councillor D Cook, the following question:-

 

“I'm sure the leader has seen campaigns across the UK to remove statues of Sir Robert Peel. Can I ask him his own view, as well as Tamworth Borough Council's stance on this please?”

 

Councillor D Cook gave the following reply:-

 

“Thank you Mr Mayor,

 

Tamworth Borough Council remains committed to our heritage and certainly the Sir Robert Peel statue. We are all aware the wrong Robert Peel has been targeted here.

 

 It is worth remembering that last year the council conducted a campaign which I spearheaded called ‘Tamworth – What’s Next?’ which was all about the future of our town centre and wider town. We had some amazing public feedback and one of the biggest points that came out of the campaign was that the council should protect and enhance our heritage.

 

The debate about statues and memorials I believe is for calm discussion with a full understanding of the history.

 

My sorrow Mr Mayor is when I see war memorials vandalised. We need to remember that the government during the First World War took the decision that all soldiers of all ranks were to be buried on or near the battlefield; this was so that wealthy families could not bring their loved ones home when poorer families could not. Thus towns erected war memorials for families to have a place to grieve and names were added for both world wars. When a war memorial is vandalised, a grave is technically desecrated.”

 

QUESTIONS FROM MEMBERS OF THE COUNCIL NO.3

 

Under Procedure Rule No 11, Councillor P Standen will ask the Portfolio Holder for Assets and Finance, Councillor R Pritchard, the following question:-

 

Would the Cabinet member advise if the cabinet would consider the possibility of trialling a reduction in charges for town centre car parking operated by Tamworth Council for customers who choose to use cashless methods of payment? This could help with reducing the spread of Coronavirus and other pathogens to users of our town centre car parks and council employees handling coins from parking machines.”

 

Councillor R Pritchard gave the following reply:-

 

“Thank you Mr Mayor.

 

Cabinet would be happy to considerer any costed proposals the member wishes to present.”

 

Councillor P Standen asked the following supplementary question :-

 

“Yes Mr Mayor. I deliberately didn't put any costs in because it's too early to say as Councillor Cook was saying earlier, it's just the idea of it, just a suggestion and there's nothing political here, we are going to need to try and recover as a town and this was just a potential method I could see of how we could actually encourage people to use methods of parking payment which had less impact on spreading viruses. The cost saving to the Council could be shared with the user, which was really my second question. Does Cabinet Member agree that there might be potential savings there which could help businesses in Tamworth? We could charge cheaper car parking as a result of the different methods of payment.”

 

Councillor R Pritchard gave the following reply:-

 

“Thank you Mr Mayor, Councillor Standen clearly has some ideas he is eager to share so I'd be happy to talk with him offline outside the meeting about those ideas.”

 

 

QUESTIONS FROM MEMBERS OF THE COUNCIL NO.4

 

Under Procedure Rule No 11, Councillor P Standen will ask the Portfolio Holder for Culture and Operational Services, Councillor J Chesworth, the following question:-

 

“Could the Cabinet member advise what plans the Council has to include Wilnecote on the Tamworth/Britain in Bloom route in the future?”

 

Councillor J Chesworth gave the following reply:-

 

“Tamworth in Bloom 2020 sadly didn’t take place due to the Coronavirus pandemic, and depending on the restrictions going forwards Bloom may not even go ahead in 2021. This of course will be discussed at a later date. Wilnecote, as with all areas of Tamworth, can be considered for Bloom when a decision has been made on its future.”

Councillor P Standen asked the following supplementary question :-

 

“No, Mr Mayor just a comment that as the largest ward we do need to have something paid back to us at times and we do have areas of interest like the Kettlebrook Nature Reserve. Thank you.”

 

QUESTIONS FROM MEMBERS OF THE COUNCIL NO.5

 

Under Procedure Rule No 11, Councillor Dr S Peaple will ask the Portfolio Holder for Portfolio Holder for Heritage and Growth, Councillor J Oates, the following question:-

 

“Following the publication of the WMCA and GBSLEP economic recovery plans, would the portfolio holder agree that they are too focused on the major metropolitan authorities and that therefore more emphasis needs to be given to supporting the wider region, including Tamworth.”

 

Councillor J Oates gave the following reply:-

 

“Thank you for raising your concern on this matter. Both the GBSlEP and WMCA cover large areas of the West Midlands and geographically we are on the edge of this physical geography. But Tamworth is well connected with the West Midlands, which provides a significant level of employment for Tamworth residents either by commuting into the region to by contributing locally to the supply chains of industry throughout the region. It is for this reason that the issue you raise is a complex one.

 

 As we are in the city economy region the benefits seen by the Mets will also be benefits to the residents of Tamworth. The functioning economic geography of the GBSLEP and WMCA clearly includes and benefits Tamworth.

 

Note should be made of the support from both growth hubs to supporting local Tamworth businesses during the pandemic through triaging their needs and the work that began pre pandemic with the WMCA in pushing for the plus 10,000 project improving skill levels and employability of residents in Tamworth.

 

As a council we have been active during the pandemic including only yesterday when we submitted projects for emergency infrastructure funding which had unexpectedly been made available

 

I am sure you would expect I do agree that more emphasis is needed on the towns and cities that make up the wider area and like the excellent efforts you make at WMCA scrutiny I too push the arguments for investment and support for Tamworth in existing work and in recovery plans. I commit to continue to push for this and challenge at each opportunity

 

Councillor Dr S Peaple asked the following supplementary question :-

 

“Brief one Mr Mayor, just to say that we welcome the response. I think we have shared a focus on the needs of Tamworth. My concern remains that the recovery plan seems to focus on existing networks that exist within the Mets and I wanted to ensure that we get the best share, but I think from Councillor Oates’ assurance we will continue to work together. The Council's leader, members of the opposition represent it, which is a statement about working together and listening to his response I see that continuing, so I'm sure that would be great. Thank you Mr Mayor.”

 

Councillor J Oates gave the following reply:-

 

“Completely agree with Councillor Peaple and we are in a competitive environment and it's up to both myself and Councillor Peaple to make sure that Tamworth voice is heard when we're competing against other non con members of the Combined Authority and other LEPS in the region. So yes, absolutely, we need to keep fighting for Tamworth and we need to make sure that we are head and shoulders above the competition.”